The Curious Case of the Brazilian Royal Family

When Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops invaded Portugal the royal family fled to Brazil. In 1822 they declared independence and Dom Pedro I became the head of the western hemisphere’s only monarchy. He declared himself emperor and his family governed Brazil for the next 67 years. They were exiled back to Europe after a coup in 1889 but have been trying to regain power ever since, most recently during a 1993 plebiscite. Every year, the royal family and a group of their followers meet to strategise their return to power.

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When I heard that the XXIV annual Monarchist Encounter in Rio de Janeiro was open to the public I imagined myself seated in an imperial-era hall surrounded by men with monocles and ornamental moustaches and elegant old ladies with lap dogs. Would any of the celebrities and intellectuals who  supported the return to monarchy along with 6 million other voters during the 1993 plebiscite show up? Would I get to meet Sandra da Sa? I pictured myself in the imperial coffee break eating noble, 19th Century delicacies like sturgeon brain pastries.

Like many Americans I was taught from an early age to hate anything related to nobility. Whereas schoolchildren in older countries might study the majesty of empire, we learn from an early age that inbreeding caused by the requirement that nobles only marry others of their kind causes weakened DNA, deformities like Hapsburg jaw and haemophilia and lower intelligence levels – much like what happened with some remote Appalachian family clans. Outside of school I learned of the conspiracy theories. Could it be that the Brazilian Royal family is also part of the Illuminati, the secret, 18th Century Bavarian society that supposedly governs the world along with the Rothschilds? Full of expectations, I dusted off the formal wear I hadn’t used since a funeral and took the subway to Catete.

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I arrived in an old mansion near the former capital building, now known as the Museum of the Republic, and was received by a group of polite men in suits. I sat in the back of the room and concluded that there were around 65 people there. The walls were decorated with the royal coat of arms. There was a stand near the entrance selling t-shirts, pins and stickers.  Four people sat at a table facing the crowd. His Royal and Imperial Highness Dom Rafael Antônio Maria José Francisco Miguel Gabriel Gonzaga de Orleans e Bragança e Ligne, Prince of Brasil, took the microphone. He is a young man and he looked completely normal – in other words I was sad to see that he didn’t have any visible signs of centuries of inbreeding. OK, he had a strong jaw but it was far from being a Hapsburg. During his short speech he presented his arguments in favour of Brasil’s return to Monarchy.

“Every four years,” he said, “we Brazilians are required to choose between disagreeable candidates representing the same oligarchies.” He explained that a monarch is an impartial person who does not fall victim to class pressures. I imagined that he was not thinking of the French Bourgeois guillotining his ancestors when he said this.  “A monarch,” he said, “performs the role of a mediator, generating more stability, resulting in a true democracy.” He finished his speech saying, “every year the republic loses force. The 2013 protests were a yell of ‘enough!’. And every year the monarchy gains power. I, as always, remain available to serve the interests of Brasil.”

The crowd rose and gave the Prince a long standing ovation. A young history teacher stepped up to the podium to deliver a presentation honouring the 100th anniversary of the birth of the current monarchs’ mother, Maria Isabel da Bavaria. I learned that the Royal Family were expelled from Brasil in 1890 immediately after the Empire was abolished and that they were invited to return in 1920. At this time they were living comfortably in the enormous Nymphenburg Palace in Bavaria and opted to remain in Europe. Maria Isabel’s uncle, Prince Rudolph, got into an argument with Hitler during the 1930s and took refuge in another fascist country, Italy.  Maria Isabel married Dom Pedro Henrique de Orleans e Bragança in 1937. Shortly thereafter, they moved to France where they remained during the Nazi occupation until the end of the war. At this moment they decided to move to Brasil, a country where none of them were born. Could it be that those years of collaboration with European fascism had anything to do with the involvement of their children with the Sociedade Brasileira de Defesa da Tradição, Familia e Propriedade (TFP), ardent supporters of the neofascist military dictatorship?

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I stepped out of the hall and called a friend who used to belong to the União do Vegetal, a Brazilian religious organization that helped legalise the psychotropic drug Ayausca for their services during the Dictatorship and supported the return to monarchy during the plebiscite of 1993.

“We believe in the return to monarchy because of our belief in King Solomon”, he said, “but in fact only about 10% of the Brazilian population voted in favour of it.  Brasil started off as a monarchy and our second king, Pedro II, was really good. The country developed a lot under his guidance. It’s part of our culture and we still have this thing with us, you see the signs on the street everywhere you go: the King of Football, the King of Popsicles, the King of Chicken Pies… Back in the 1980s I believed in God and radically defended the Virgin Mary but I ended up becoming an atheist and today I no longer vote and don’t care about any of this stuff. A lot of the people who support the Monarchy are distant relatives and say that they do it because of family ties. And there are always military officers among the supporters because the father of the Brazilian Army was a Duke, the Duke of Caxias. There are also these organisations called the Círculos Monárquicos which are chic and full of ultra-right intellectuals who get together to sit under the royal coat of arms, drink champagne, eat croissants and BS about the grandeur of empire. I used to participate in a lot of these meetings and thought they were a lot of fun but afterward I got bored with them and began to think they were too square. These meetings were always full of people from the TFP crying about all the social advances that we have seen in the last 20 years. There were even racists and slavery supporters mixed in which I found to be extremely disagreeable – something really troubling.”

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I returned to the hall where a clean-cut man named Dr. Gilberto Calado de Oliveira was in the middle of a long and complicated juridical speech about structural problems in the Supreme Court which, according to him, resulted in two things that violate the “natural laws of God”: decriminalisation of marijuana and legalisation of gay marriage. With deep and serious tone of voice, he emphasised that, “this government strengthens the environmentalists, the landless peasants, the maroon communities, the indigenous people and the sexual diversity movement in order to destroy what is left of Christian society”. I looked at my photographer Matias Maxx who is a well known marijuana rights activist and said,  “what do you, who are obviously high right now, think of this analysis?” We fought back laughter.

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An old lady with a stylish blue pants suit and Chanel scarf stood up. “Doctor, I hear what you are saying about homosexuality and marijuana,” she said, “but in many places in Europe like England under Queen Elizabeth it is allowed. There are other monarchies like Holland that allow this too. In Holland and in Scandinavia they have allowed the sale of marijuana for many years. What do you think of this, sir?”

He took a deep breath and said, “I lived in Europe for a time, in Spain, and I can say with conviction that they are even more promiscuous than the Brazilian people.” He changed the subject and continued his speech saying, “the legalisation of abortion in cases of encephalitis is nothing less than the State preparing its base to legalise infanticide.”

A woman from Sergipe raised her hand, said that she was a social sciences student and asked if didn’t think that the anthropological vision should be taken into consideration. He paused as if surprised, and said, “this anthropological vision is tied to human rights which doesn’t just recommend that the Indians maintain their savagery but believes it should be projected onto occidental culture.”

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The next speaker had a spectacular moustache that was truly ornamental. It was the type of moustache I imagined everyone would have when I first saw the event program. He introduced himself as Rogério Tjader, the oldest monarchist in Brasil and author of various books on the subject. After making a gratuitous joke about the PT party he told the story of what it was like to be a part of the small group that went to the docks to meet the royal family during their arrival from Europe in 1945. “It was a cloudy day and I, who was still a child at the time, remember the sadness I felt that they would not be able to see the beautiful horizon of our marvellous city. I saw little Dom Bertrand. I am certain that he doesn’t remember this date but I remember the moment in which his older brother looked at me. We were both children of the same age. Since that moment I have never abandoned the cause, never abandoned my faith and continue to support this marvellous imperial family. I have been dedicated to the monarchic cause for over 70 years.” From his chair nearby, Prince Bertrand warmly gazed at Dr. Tjader.

I am not sure if it was due to the hypnotizing moustache, his charisma or the fact that any speech would seem interesting after sitting through an hour of pure demagoguery, but Dr. Tjader’s enthusiasm was contagious. “People are afraid of thick books,” he said, “and for this reason my new book about the life of Empress Dona Teresa Cristina is only 200 pages. She was a wonderful woman who did a lot for our nation but I focus more on the lesser known elements of her life such as the culinary arts.  She had three boys in her house who liked chicken drumsticks but everyone knows that beast only has two legs. So this woman- the Empress of Brasil- in all of her brilliance, had the idea to shred a chicken breast, roll it in dough in the shape of a drumstick and fry it and with this she invented the coxinha, cultural patrimony of our marvellous nation.”

Matias immediately pulled out his smart-phone and ran a Google search. “There is some controversy,” he said. “It seems like it was invented by one of her slaves. Other people say that it was invented in São Paulo.”

With all this talk about food we welcomed the arrival of the coffee break. What would be on the imperial coffee break menu? Would servants make the rounds with bread and olive oil? Would there be almond croquembouches? In Imperial Russia the noblemen didn’t cut their fingernails to symbolise the privilege of never having to do any physical labor. I was disappointed to see the normal sized fingernails of a prince holding a toasted ham and cheese sandwich triangle and simple glass of guava juice.

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I walked up to the elderly woman with the channel scarf and asked if we could take her picture.

“Of course, my love. Can I take off my glasses though? My eyes are a little red because I was up all night at an art show.”

“I liked your comment about the marijuana and gay marriages being legal in Europe,” I said.

“Thank you. I thought the subject was a bit heavy. I’ve been going to these monarchy meetings since I was a girl and I am not used to hearing so much prejudice. Everybody should have the freedom to do what they want. And, historically speaking, the royal family didn’t used to be like this. Dom Pedro II was a very liberal man who had many black friends.”

“Why are you a monarchist?” I asked.

“I have been a monarchist since I was a child. Brasil would be the most powerful nation in the world if the royal family had stayed in power. I dream of a miracle. Some people think I have a Cinderella complex but we need more young people involved. I am happy to see so many young people here today like you two.”

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An elegant, thin man in his 70s introduced himself as Ohannes Kabderian, the Chancellor of the Rio de Janeiro Círculo Monárquico. He offered to introduce us to Prince Rafael.

Suddenly there I was, in the flickering of half a dozen camera and iphone flashes, face to face with the young prince. I said, “Is your highness the Prince Rafael de Orleans e Bragança?”

“Yes, but my full name is much longer.”

“How do you think your life is different from a typical Brazilian?”

“I have to behave well enough to serve as a positive example to others,” he said.

“Do you support any political party or politician?”

“No,” he said, “the role of the monarchy is to be objective and maintain distance from party fighting.”

“What about football. Can you support a team or do you have to maintain distance from that too?”

He smiled, “What? Football? Yes, I play it every day. I root for Fluminense, like all of the Bragança family.”


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Rafael excused himself because his uncle Prince Bertrand, a single man in his 70s, was starting his closing speech.

In a thick German accent, Prince Bertrand explained that true democracy doesn’t exist in Brasil – only elite factions fighting for power – and that this destabilises the country. He said that the monarchy fell because it was defending the people against the oligarchies. Then he began to attack gays. “It may be true that a recent study showed that 40% of the population supports gay marriage but they only said that to the researchers because they were afraid of being accused of crimes of homophobia.”

It was time for us to yell “enough!” We were tired of hearing people talk about their dreams for a country that would exclude large segments of the population or treat them as second class citizens. We slipped out,  found a local dive bar and joined our fellow commoners for cheap beer from the imperial city of Petropolis and  coloured, hard-boiled bar eggs.  There, on the far side of half a dozen beers, I thought that it was a shame that this type of event that brings together people from all over the country to preserve the memory of an important phase in Brazilian history and dream of a better future could not keep up the royal impartiality that was so praised during the princes’ speeches.


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This article by Brian Mier, originally appeared in Portuguese in Vice Brasil.

Photos by Matias Maxx.

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